Putting practice into perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent

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    Joanne Ruthsatz a,, Kyle Ruthsatz a, Kimberly Ruthsatz Stephens b


    a r t i c l e i n f o

    Article history:Received 22 April 2013Received in revised form 7 August 2013Accepted 7 August 2013Available online xxxx

    Keywords:Child prodigy

    Intelligence xxx (2013) xxxxxx

    INTELL-00840; No of Pages 6

    Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

    Intelligeexceptionally young performers strongly supports nature as the primary driver of extreme talent. 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    1. Introduction

    The nature versus nurture debate has existed since thebeginning of recorded history. As far back as Plato and Aristotle,

    modern times, the debate over nature versus nurture hasfocused on exceptional performers.

    One of themost interesting groups of exceptional achieversis child prodigies. While there is some debate regarding whophilosophical thinkers have offered conflictiwhether nature or nurture is thedriving forcedifferences.While Plato believed that intelligeability Aristotle was convinced that the envirresponsible for the apparent differences in h

    Corresponding author at: The Ohio State UniversityUnited States. Tel.: +1 419 656 3031; fax: +1 419 627

    0160-2896/$ see front matter 2013 Elsevier Inc. Ahttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.08.003

    Please cite this article as: Ruthsatz, J., etIntelligence (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.10prodigies, for example, tend to score better with respect to their general IQs, visual spatial abilities,and working memories, than art prodigies. This new research on a group of exceptional anda b s t r a c t

    The debate overwhether exceptional abilities are primarily the product of nature or nurture begancenturies ago and continues to this day. Recently, much of this debate took place within thecontext of considering the abilities of exceptional musicians. Several of such studies suggested thatgeneral intelligence and domain specific skills, both of which fall on the nature side of thespectrum, play a significant role in the development of musical abilities. In this paper, the authordemonstrates that those studies which attempted to argue for a purely nurture-driven account ofsuch musical talent, moreover, merely showed that practice has some role to play in thedevelopmentof talent; they failed to rule out the possibility that factors such as general intelligenceand domain specific skills also contribute to the development of exceptional performance abilities.If the evidence generated by studies of exceptional musicians provides a strong basis for believingthat nature is theprimary driver of exceptional talent, that evidence receives a powerful boost fromrecent studies of child prodigies. Child prodigies provide a particularly fascinating view on thenature versus nurture debate because of the extremely young age at which the prodigiesdemonstrate their remarkable abilities, thus, limiting the extent to which their abilities can besolely the result of extreme dedication to practice. Despite this fact, some have still argued thatchild prodigies' abilities are nurture-driven. Recent research, however, demonstrates that childprodigies' skills are highly dependent on a few features of their cognitive profiles, includingelevated general IQs, exceptionalworkingmemories, and elevated attention to detail. Other innatecharacteristics of the child prodigies predict the domain in which the prodigies will excel. MusicIntelligenceWorking memoryAutismBrown University, United Statesa The Ohio State University, United StatesPutting practice into perspective: Chof innate talentng opinions as tobehind individualncewas an innateonment was moreuman abilities. In

    , Mansfield, OH 44906,1065.

    ll rights reserved.

    al., Putting practice int16/j.intell.2013.08.003prodigies as evidence

    ncequalifies as a child prodigy, most agree that child prodigies areindividuals who perform at an adult professional level within aculturally relevant domain, either by ten years of age (Feldman,1986) or before adolescence (McPherson, 2006). Despite theextremely young age at which these individuals reach aprofessional level of performance, the same practice versustalent debate occurs with respect to these exceptionalindividuals. Some researchers go so far as to argue that training

    o perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent,

  • 2 J. Ruthsatz et al. / Intelligence xxx (2013) xxxxxxis both necessary and sufficient to produce a child prodigy,while denying the existence of innate talents or gifts altogether(Ericsson, 1996;Howe,Davidson, & Slobada, 1998). Others takethe contrary view, positing that innate talent, coupled withpractice, is essential for an individual to produce the extremeachievements of child prodigies (Detterman & Ruthsatz, 1999;Feldman, 1986; Feldman & Morelock, 2011; Howard, 2008;Ruthsatz & Detterman, 2003; Ruthsatz & Ruthsatz, submittedfor publication; Ruthsatz & Urbach, 2012; Vandervert, 2009;Winner, 1996). Recent studies examining the cognitive profilesof child prodigies produce strong evidence that, while practiceis certainly not irrelevant, these child prodigies consistentlydisplay several inherent attributes that make it difficult todismiss the decisive role of innate talent in producing theirexceptional early achievements (Ruthsatz & Detterman, 2003;Ruthsatz & Ruthsatz, submitted for publication; Ruthsatz &Urbach, 2012).

    This paper will first review and assess the literaturediscussing the practice versus talent debate as it emerges fromstudies of exceptional, non-prodigious musicians. It will thenturn to the debate as it occurs within studies examining childprodigies, anddiscuss the striking new evidence emerging fromthese studies that supports the crucial role innate abilities playin creating child prodigies.

    2. Exceptional musicians

    Much of our knowledge regarding exceptional achievers hasbeen extrapolated from studies of musicians. Prior researchfollowed the nature vs. nurture debate with studies thatinvestigated either innate variables related to musical achieve-ment or environmental ones exclusively. It is not until a paperby Detterman and Ruthsatz (1999) in which they introduce theSummation Theory that both nature and nurture were mea-sured together to predict exceptional musical performance. TheSummation Theory states that all exceptional performanceincluding that of exceptional musical achievement can bepredicted best from a regression equation where Y = Xg(general intelligence) + Xds (domain specific skills) + Xp(practice). The Summation Theory represents a culmination ofresearch in the field of intelligence and musical performanceand each variable is briefly reviewed as it relates to findings inthe field of musical achievement.

    3. General intelligence

    General intelligence is a widely studied heritable trait and ameta-analysis of twin studies (Bouchard & McGue, 1981) putthe heritability estimate for general intelligence at about 50%.Multiple studies looking only at general intelligence havereported a positive correlation between musical achievementand general intelligence (Lynn & Gault, 1986; Lynn, Wilson, &Gault, 1989). Most convincingly, a review of 65 musical studiesfound a positive correlation between musical achievement andgeneral intelligence of .35 (Shuter, 1968). Additionally, individ-ualswithmental retardation have delayedmusical achievement(DiGiammarino, 1990). However, the existence of musicalsavants, individuals who have advanced musical skills thatcoexist with a disability, often autism, support the existence ofdomain specific skills as a variable that is important to musicalachievement.Please cite this article as: Ruthsatz, J., et al., Putting practice intIntelligence (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.08.0034. Domain specic skills

    Sloboda, Hemmelin, and O'Conner (1985) and Young andNettlebeck (1995) reported on two separate individuals withsavant syndrome. The first musical savant scored a 60 on theperformance section of the WAIS. He was interested in musicfrom a very early age and at the age of twenty-one wasexceptional in reproducing musical pieces after hearingthem. He was able to outperform a professional pianist'smusical memory that was used as a comparison for theirstudy. In the second study, Young and Nettlebeck also testeda musical savant for his ability to memorize musical piecesand also for his musical aptitude using the Measures ofMusical Ability (Bently, 1966). Again, the savant had anexceptional memory for music and perfect pitch.

    The two studies mentioned above fit well with theSummation Theory, both savants had deficits in generalintelligence (Xg) but with extreme domain specific skills inmusic (Xds) coupled with extensive practice. The real dis-agreement, then, is not whether practice has any role to play inthe development of exceptional musical talent; it is whetherexceptional abilities can be developed independent of anyinherent abilities.

    Researchers who advocate this position, and the idea thattalent is solely the product of environmental factors, tendedto focus either on practice time or on parental involvement. Iwill discuss two of these studies and then demonstrate how,in each case, the authors failed to discuss evidence that theindividuals' innate abilities were also driving differences inperformance.

    5. Practice

    Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) argued thatpractice alone independent of any innate ability is sufficientto produce exceptional musical performance. In a study ofviolinists, Ericsson et al. concluded that deliberate practice isnecessary to become an expert. They stated:

    "Our theoretical framework can also provide a sufcientaccount of the major facts about the nature and scarcity ofexceptional performance. Our account does not dependon scarcity of innate ability (talent).We attribute thedramatic differences in performance between experts andamateursnovices to similarly large differences in therecorded amounts of deliberate practice." (p. 392)

    In support of this point, the researchers presented datademonstrating that elite musicians reported spending signif-icantly more time practicing by the age of 23 than the othertwo groups of musicians. Additionally, Ericsson et al. (1993)reported the need for 10 years of deliberate practice to reachexceptional levels of achievement within the music domain.

    The authors make a strong argument regarding theimportance of practice in building talent among musicians.They fail, however, to rule out the possibility that differences ininnate talentwere also affecting thesemusicians' ultimate levelof achievement. In fact, a reanalysis of the authors' datademonstrated that those individuals who eventually becameelite musicians won significantly more competitions at a veryyoung age than those who eventually became good musicianso perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent,

  • 3J. Ruthsatz et al. / Intelligence xxx (2013) xxxxxxor those who later began training to be music teachers(Ruthsatz, 2000; Ruthsatz, Detterman, Griscom, & Cirullo,2008). These competitions were won, moreover, long beforethemusicians had accumulated ten years of deliberate practice(Ruthsatz, 2000; Ruthsatz et al., 2008).

    Howe, Davidson, Moore, and Slobada (1995) attempted toestablish the critical nature of environmental factors byexamining the effect of parental involvement on the musicalachievements of their children. The authors theorized thatincreased levels of parental involvementwould be predictive ofhigher levels of musical achievement. To test their theory, theresearchers divided the participants into 5 groups: group 1consisted of 119 students who had gained admissions to aselective music school through auditioning; group 2 consistedof 30 participants who had applied to the same school but notgained admission; group 3 consisted of 23 participants whoinquired about admission but did not apply to the musicalinstitute; group 4 consisted of 27 students who took music at astate school; and group 5 consisted of 58 participants whobegan lessons and then gave up more than a year before thestudy began.

    The authors claim that the students in group 1 also hadsignificantly more parental involvement in their musiclessons and practice sessions than the students in groups 4and 5, and that it was this difference in parental involvementthat resulted in the differences in musical achievement foundbetween group 1 and groups 4 and 5.

    While the authors report an interesting finding regardingthe extent of parental involvement in group 1 as compared togroups 4 and 5, they do not discuss an equally interestingsimilarity in parental involvement between groups 1, 2, and 3.The parents for these top three groups of musical performersall reported the exact same levels of involvement for the firstthree years of practice, (2.6, 2.6, and 2.6). They also reportsimilar levels of involvement for the next three years (2.8, 2.6,and 2.6). Despite nearly identical levels of parental involve-ment over six years, however, the students in group 1 showedsignificantly higher levels of musical achievement as mea-sured by The Associated Board and Guildhall School of MusicGrades at age 11 than students in groups 2 and 3 (Howe et al.,1995). In the above mentioned 1996 paper, Davidson, Howe,Moore and Sloboda did not report the statistical differences inmusical achievement between group 1 and groups 2 and 3,however, an earlier paper based on the same data set didinclude this information. In this prior paper, Howe et al.(1995), using the same data set as the 1996 paper, reportedon early musical behaviors displayed by the same 5 groups ofmusicians as the above-mentioned paper. The purpose of the1995 paper was to show that group 1 who had the highestlevel of musical achievement did not show the earliestmusical behavior when compared to the other 4 groups. Theevidence in that paper is used to discount the innate talentposition. In doing so, the authors found that group 1 hadstatistically higher levels of musical achievement at age 11(4.5) when compared to all the other 4 groups (3.1, 3.2, 2.6,and .3) respectively but not the earliest signs ofmusical abilityor interest as reported by their parents. The differencebetween group 1 and the lower 4 levels of musicians wassignificant at the .001 level.

    To summarize, in both Ericsson et al. (1993) work withelite musicians, and in the study by Davidson, Howe, Moore,Please cite this article as: Ruthsatz, J., et al., Putting practice intIntelligence (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2013.08.003and Sloboda (1996), there is evidence of early differences inmusical achievement that support innate talent in themusical domain. In the former study, these differences wereevident prior to ten years of deliberate practice, and in thelatter study, these differences were evident despite nearlyidentical amounts of parental influence. At the very least,then, these studies fail to rule out the importance of innateabilities in producing exceptional achievement. Recentstudies of child prodigies a group of exceptional performer...